A Qualitative Investigation of Web-Browsing Behavior

Niranjan V. Raman, University of Tennessee
[ to cite ]:
Niranjan V. Raman (1997) ,"A Qualitative Investigation of Web-Browsing Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, eds. Merrie Brucks and Deborah J. MacInnis, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 511-516.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, 1997      Pages 511-516

A QUALITATIVE INVESTIGATION OF WEB-BROWSING BEHAVIOR

Niranjan V. Raman, University of Tennessee

INTRODUCTION

More than a decade ago, McQuail (1984) predicted that newer communication technologies would change the nature of the communication process from dissemination of information from one source to mass audiences, to individual search and interaction with the source(s). Interactive media like the Internet appear to fulfilling that prophecy.

The growth of the Internet has been projected at nearly 10 percent every month, with a large part of this growth fueled by the development of the World Wide Web (referred to as the Web), and Web browsing software such as Mosaic and Netscape (Ellsworth and Ellsworth 1995). The Web is a popular Internet service that enables documents, pictures and images to be accessed easily from any computer connected to the Internet, by merely pointing and clicking on hyper-text linked words, phrases or images. Millions of consumers now browse through Web pages and sites that enable them to access articles, pictures, and computer programs on the Internet, and participate in discussion forums in cyberspace. Commerce over the Web is gathering momentum with cybermalls, interactive storefronts, and classified advertising. In short, we have new forms of dissemination and assimilation of information on products, services, and interactions between consumers and marketers hat is significantly different from traditional mass communication forms like advertising.

Historically, advertisers were able to use programming to their advantage in an environment where viewers did not have many media choices, and typically had little choice but to watch whatever was on the television set (Draft 1992; Olney, Holbrook and Batra 1991). The main assumption for advertising effectiveness was that audiences could be influenced by repeated exposures to advertising messages. This repeated exposure approach pioneered by Ebbinghaus (1885/1987) in experimental psychology, and extended to applications in advertising with Krugman’s work (1962; 1975), has dominated much of advertising research and practice. For example, researchers have shown that repetition moderates ad effectiveness (Grass and Wallace 1969), persuasiveness (Wilson and Miller 1968), attitudes (Batra and Ray 1986; Belch 1982; Cacioppo and Petty 1979), and recall (Cacioppo and Petty 1989; Hornik 1989), at different levels of repetitions.

However, over the last decade, audiences have been increasing their influence on what they wish to view. One example of this is their avoidance of exposure to commercials by zipping and zapping (Heeter and Greenberg 1985; Kaplan 1985; Olney, Holbrook and Batra 1991). Interactive media will afford the consumer even better influence and choice of the material available for viewing (Draft 1992; Rust and Oliver 1994; Shell 1994). [Control in this context means specification of what a viewer wants to see, and excludes other forms of control such as leaving the room, zapping, zipping, turning off the device, or just not paying attention.]

With such choices available to consumers, exposure to commercials can be at the consumer’s volition (Raman and Leckenby 1995). Clawson (1993) reports the findings of a survey of 1,912 television viewers and electronic enthusiasts that indicates that consumers desire "control, convenience, and customization." Thus, audience members are being extremely selective over what they watch, when they watch, and how much of the content they watch (Stewart 1992). The change in audience behavior, from adopting a passive role to a more active one has been suggested as a premonition that traditional intrusive advertising in interactive media is unlikely to happen (Draft 1992; Rust and Oliver 1994). Unlike incidental exposure to advertising in conventional media, exposure to marketing messages and commercial communication in interactive media may have to be voluntarily sought by the consumer, such as clicking on an icon or button, in order for exposure to the ad to occur. Additionally, the consumer also exercises a choice of selecting different levels of an interactive message. In other words, the consumer can be exposed to varying amounts or levels of exposure.

Advertisers will therefore have to find some way of inducing consumer exposure to their messages (Shell 1994), or study the conditions under which such desired exposure is likely to result. Furthermore, interactive media also make it possible for marketers to obtain information on consumers preferences and information use in this medium because selection of material and specific file requests can be logged and recorded. This information can be very useful to marketers in instituting upgrades and improvements in products and service offerings (Raman and Leckenby 1995). Hence, it is very important to examine Web-browsing behavior of consumers.

This study adopted a qualitative approach using a combination of natural observations and short interviews to examine how consumers navigate the Web, what experiences they have in their cybertravels, and the elements of Webpages and browsers that they frequently use to navigate. The methodology adopted to study this behavior is presented in the next section. This is followed by a discussion of the findings punctuated by relevant subject comments, and the interpretations and emergent themes identified from the results. Finally, implications for advertisers and marketers are presented.

METHODOLOGY

Web-surfing is generally a solitary personal activity, more similar to reaing of a newspaper or magazine, as compared to viewing television which is more social. Studying the ways in which users navigate the Web is very important because it enables insights into the effectiveness of elements of the browser, the homepage, individual habits, and styles of navigating. Besides, studying the experiences of Web users can yield rich insights of communication processes in this medium that cannot be detected by objective measures like hits. Thus, the objectives of this study were two-fold: (i) to observe the styles and ways of browsing the Web, and (ii) to understand the experiences Web users have in their Web navigation and homepage visits.

A phenomenological perspective was adopted for examining the research issues. Palmer (1969) defines phenomenology as "letting things become manifest as what they are, without forcing our own categories on them." According to this author, a phenomenologist examines lived experience to know more about the object or event. This approach enables enhanced theoretical sensitivity to the findings, a valued component of qualitative research (Strauss and Corbin 1990). Such methods of inquiry are being valued in contemporary consumer behavior research (Belk, Sherry and Wallendorf 1988; Hudson and Ozanne 1988; Thompson, Locander and Pollio 1990) for their deeper insights into individuals’ behaviors. For example, Thompson, Locander and Pollio (1990) used an existential phenomenology approach to study everyday shopping experiences of contemporary married women. Sherry (1990) studied the experiences that consumers had at a contemporary flea market with the help of field observations and long interviews with consumers.

This study used a blend of qualitative methods and consisted of field observations and post-observation interviews. Eight individuals, five men and three women, were the subjects of study as they surfed the Web in a computer lab at a large Southwestern university. The ages of the subjects ranged from 15 to 31. The ethnicity of the subjects varied; there was one black, one Hispanic, one Asian, and the remainder white. In exit interviews, all subjects reported having moderate knowledge of the Web, and spending an average of about 8-16 hours on the Web per week. Although this was a small convenience sample, it must be stressed that the goal was to gain insights into the ways that individuals use the Web, and observe usage styles that would help understand what consumers find useful and appealing on the Web. It was also to trace individuals’ reasoning processes through their actions.

An observation period began when a subject occupied the computer station adjacent to the researcher’s station in the computer, and began surfing the Web. Field notes were rapidly taken on all actions of the user, especially styles of interaction, topic selection and preferences, navigational button usage, and style of browsing. Since individuals in a computer lab typically are engrossed in their work, it was very easy to observe subjects at adjoining computer stations without the knowledge of the subjects. Observation periods averaged over thirty minutes each.

At the end of an observational period, the researcher introduced himself, informed the subject that his/her actions had been recorded for research purposes, and requested the subject for permission to use the observations. The subjects were assured of confidentiality, and all subjects agreed to use of the observational notes in this research. Exit interviews were conducted to check for consistency with actions, and additionally, to get an understanding of the users’ actions. In this interview, the subjects were asked on their style of looking up information and topics on the Web, the amount of time they spent on the Web per week, their method of navigation and interaction, and the Web pages that they liked and disliked. Thus, these interviews also helped to serve as a reliability and validity check as mentioned in qualitative research approaches (Kirk and Miller 1986).

OBSERVATIONAL FINDINGS

Analysis of the observations of the subjects on the Web enabled insights into styles and pattern of interactions that come into play in Web-surfing. Each of these phenomena is discussed below, with instances of specific incidents and description of users’ actions.

Reject Unless Interesting Phenomenon

Surfing on the Web relates to the ability of individuals to select choices and topics by pointing and clicking on hypertext links to view or obtain other documents and files running on different computers at different places, on their own computers. Ellsworth and Ellsworth (1995) point out that most Web users are very quick at finding out that clicking on highlighted words, pictures, or parts of pictures can enable them to view another page or image.

The subjects observed were found to start their browsing session by clicking open a link from the browser’s homepage, or the default homepage which happened to be the university’s homepage. Frequently, the first link would be from a What is New or similar topic list. Subsequent topics were selected using related links on topics that were of interest to the user. In other words, the clicking seemed to have some purpose to it rather than at random. This was confirmed in the exit interviews:

I start by clicking on Escapes from the Netscapes Home Page. I do this because it has interesting things, especially on science (Matt)

I usually start off by clicking on the Netscapes icon to get to the Netscapes home page, and then click on What’s New (Viola)

I usually like to read sports and business news stories because I am a journalist. I usually start by looking at Clarinet News on the UT Web home page, and click to What’s New and Good (Gail)

This exploratory behavior was also reflected in the selection of subsequent pages and topics. Usually, subjects scanned the first couple of sentences. If it interested them, they scrolled down and were actively involved in reading the whole page or document. Otherwise, they were observed to quickly move on to other topics and links. For example, Matt, averaged about 20 seconds on the first four pages that he glanced at, hitting the Next link on the page to move on to other topics. However, he was observed to concentrate on a story Sand in his Face taking nearly twice the time on this page (about 48 seconds). He also spent longer time-periods when viewing photographs of Iceland, theKennedy Space Center Homepage, and reading the Apollo flight summary. He also spent considerable amount of time on the details of the Space Shuttle and the images of Apollo.

Similarly, Gail took more time (45 seconds) scrolling down to completely read a news story in ESPNet’s Sportzone, than other pages that she rapidly skimmed at about 12 seconds on average. Gail’s method was very purposeful; she took notes on a writing pad when she was on topics/articles that she appeared to be involved in.

Again, this behavior was confirmed in the exit interviews where all respondents indicated that their strategy was to skim the first few lines to decide whether to read the story in its entirety or not:

I usually scan the stuff and I’ll only read something if it’s interesting (Chad)

I click on whatever catches my eye. Then I usually read the first couple of paragraphs. If it’s interesting, I go on, else I go back (Matt)

This apparent "need to move on" phenomenon was also reflected in another behavior exhibited by the subjects. When a document or image took longer than twelve seconds to download, subjects canceled these by moving on to other pages and documents. May Web publishers are using fancy graphics and icons which lead to longer download times. Although such graphics may add to the aesthetic appeal of a Web page, it is more likely not to be seen at all if the download takes more than a few seconds. Moreover, with home computers that access the Web using phone lines, these download times are likely to be longer, and thus, less likely of being viewed.

Such skimming behavior mirrors related research involving CEOs of organizations in Canada. Auster and Choo (1993) reported that environmental scanning behavior of chief executives increased with source accessibility and source quality. In a test of the information overload theory, Grether and Wilde (1983) found that subjects were able to ignore unnecessary or unwanted information, and only select information relevant to their needs. The "reject unless interesting" phenomenon observed may be a main strategy used by subjects to discriminate between useful and not useful information.

Lead Me To The Holy Grail

Subjects enjoyed the fact that it was so easy to find information on any topic on the Web. The most common method appeared to be using a search engine like Yahoo or Web Crawler to find specific information. This was the most popular method employed by subjects in an exploratory surfing mode. For example, Tom frequently used Yahoo to download many files especially on compact discs, scavenge hunts, and theoretical physics. He appeared to read very little, most of the time, he scanned material and moved on. Viola used InfoSeek and typed in keywords to get a list of topics. She then clicked on places of her interest like Brasenose College, Oxford map, and the Brad Pitt page.

You use Web Crawler or something and type in whatever that I am interested in. I put in Los Angeles which gives a bunch of different sites, you can check out. Or it may have related information and then I usually check out a couple of these (John)

Subjects typed in the Uniform Resource Locator (URLs) only to go to specific sites or Web pages. This was usually the case when the subject wished to go to a personal page of a friend or a fellow student. Zahir, 23, an engineering major, frequently typed in URLs to specific personal pages of individuals. Along similar lines, Tom reported getting e-mail from friends giving URLs that is easier to copy and paste in the Open Location box directly instead of having to type it in. Viola also referred to a magazine that had URLs to sites that were highlighted as cool places on the Web.

No bookmark usage was detected in this study. This finding was not wholly surprising since these users were on lab computers with no assurance that a particular computer (that did not rebuild after logging out) would be available to the same user on subsequent days. Bookmark use is probably more prevalent when individuals use their own computers from home.

Back Up

Of all the elements of the browser, the back button on the tool bar of the browser was used most often. All the subjects used this button extensively in their navigation on the Web.

Typically, subjects would click on links to topics. If this was interesting, they would continue to read scrolling down or clicking on subsequent related links. However, when subjects clicked open a topic and decided not to read it or read related material, they would use the back button to get back to the previous page. Thus the previous page appeared to serve as a reference point for the next phase of exploration. For example, Tom used the page links to go from Bootleg Lists to Yahoo, where he typed in Entertainment, and selected Music, followed by Artists. He then clicked on the back button of the browser (Netscape) three times quickly to get back to Yahoo sarch. Later, he used the back page button four times in succession to get back to Theoretical Physics Group page from the Time Machine page.

I go back by hitting the Back button. I use the Back button a lot because it’s the easiest way to get back to the previous page. I never type the URL (Matt)

I use the Back button all the time. I hardly ever use any of the others (Gail, referring to the other buttons on the toolbar of the browser)

Sometimes I’ll spend nearly ten minutes doing nothing but clicking aimlessly (Jim, in response to clicking on links and buttons)

I use the Back button and links a lot. Usually, I have the addresses of new places. Or if the heading is interesting, I’ll look at it. Otherwise, I’ll just go back (Joe)

These observations and comments suggest that the back button is vital for Web users. The back button appears to enable using a previous page as a reference point while exploring. It suggests that when the back button can be incorporated into a Web page itself, and linked to the homepage, then the Web user is more likely to use the homepage as a reference page for clicking on other links. For example, subjects were found to use Next buttons and End buttons built into Web pages that were independent of browser buttons. Matt used the scroller frequently to get to the bottom of each topic page and click the Next button there to access the next story. When he reached the last story, he clicked on the End button in this document.

Three of the subjects were also observed using the Stop button. In all cases, this occurred when downloads of Web pages took more than twelve seconds. Although no subjects were observed using any of the other buttons on the toolbar of the browser, one subject reported using the forward and home buttons infrequently.

Use of buttons enables the user to exercise control over what they wish to see or read. This suggests that marketers may be able to offer this control by incorporating navigational buttons into their homepages. This would enable them to both encourage consumers to use their homepages as a reference mark, as well as gather research on individual users’ actions by examining file requests and the time they spend on different topics and pages.

You Name It, You Got It

The plethora of information and convenience of access to information emerged as the most important reason given by subjects for browsing the Web. Gail indicated that the Web really helped her career as a journalist. She said that she usually looked at news concerning sports, finance and stock markets, and international news:

I like browsing because it helps me as a journalist. At the touch of a button, I can get information. It gives my story depth, substance, and fact, and is very convenient. I can even do my interviews on the Web. It saves time and is really very convenient (Gail)

I like to use the Web because it’s so easy to find information, and it’s really easy to use. The information is at my finger-tips and I don’t have to search books in libraries (Matt)

The nice thing about the Web is that you can pretty much find anything you want. One can get a lot of information (Chad)

While information is readily available, subjects also conceded that it was easy to lose track of time and the purpose when browsing. For instance, Chad added that it was easy to get sucked up and end up spending 40 hours per week or so just browsing at different things.

It’s like wandering around a library or theme park-it’s easy to get lost in both.

Are You Telling Me The Truth?

While the Web provides ready ccess to information and facts on virtually anything, little interest was evidenced in finding out information about products and services from commercial sites, electronic storefronts, and marketer developed Web pages. One important reason that emerged was the perceived lack of credibility.

None of the subjects were observed on commercial homepages. [The ad banners and buttons found in many Web pages now were not that prevalent when the data for this study was collected. None were observed in this study, and hence, there is no reference to these ads.] Very few of the subjects had visited commercial homepages, and some didn’t even know of their existence. The ones that did indicated that they did so because they thought that it would be interesting. Some subjects expressed their concern regarding biased information, or questioned the need for information from marketers:

I visited the Kodak homepage. This happened because I was looking at something, and Kodak was one of the topics on this page. I recognized the name, clicked on it, and took a look. It had pictures of landscapes and monuments. Then I clicked the Back button and went back (Matt)

After realizing it was from the mutual fund company, I kind of figured that probably their information is going to be biased, trying to make you buy their products. They talked about the shambles that the retirement, that is, the social security is in, and they encourage you to think about retirement and invest it. I thought they might have exaggerated things because it was an actual company trying to sell you some mutual funds. and you can get more of a reaction if they make it seem like you are not going to have any money. I think that is biased because they are trying to make the investment seem more important for you to buy, by making the present system sound not too stable (John)

I won’t ever look at those pages because the information will be provided on products by marketers, and is likely to be one-sided (Tom)

I have never seen or visited a marketer site. It’ll be like reading a commercial. Why would anyone want to read a commercial? (Joe)

To examine subjects’ behavior on commercial homepages, all the subjects were requested to go to specific commercial homepages (e.g. Sony, Coca-Cola) and subsequently observed. Since, at the time of data collection, not many commercial homepages were in existence, with many were under construction, it was decided to use homepages of organizations that were well-known and complete.

All the subjects clicked on links on these pages at random, adopting the skimming behavior. Gail clicked on a couple of links at random on a commercial site, and then clicked right back to her earlier page (ESPN Sports Zone) hitting the back button repeatedly.

Viola was observed on the Coca-Cola page. She began by typing in Coca-Cola in the search prompt of one of the popular search engines on the Web, and clicking on one of the links. She scanned the homepage, opened links to Advertising Coca-Cola, and Coca-Cola FAQ. She was amused to read about older campaigns of Coke, and chuckled to herself. Next, she came to the FAQ page, read a couple of paragraphs and commented: "Some of this stuff is seriously boring." She later mentioned that she had also visited the Budweiser site because she heard from her friends that it was a cool site. She added:

I probably wouldn’t see information on products on the Web because you want to buy what you see. I will probably look at a product if I’m planning to buy that but I’d rather look at comments from other consumers on the product.

In general, the style of browsing does not vary very much when users browse commercial homepages but they are extremely wary about marketer’s messages because of fears that it would not be biased. This finding is in line with previous research examining use of advertising as an information source. Haller’s (1974) study on college students reported that 45% of respondents disagreed with the statement that "Advertising is a good information source," with nearly 75% indiating that "More than half of all advertising contains too little information." 79% disagreed with the statement that "Most people don’t pay much attention to advertising." Additionally, this sample found magazine and newspaper ads to be more informative and enjoyable than direct mail, outdoor, radio, or television. A similar finding was reported by Bauer and Greyser (1968).

Mittal’s (1994) investigation into consumer perceptions of television advertising indicate that consumers generally held a negative attitude toward TV advertising, describing commercials as misleading, irritating, offensive, and boring. Although 33% of the respondents agreed that television commercials were useful sources of market information (e.g. sales, brand attributes, and new products), over 60% of respondents did not feel that such information contributed to their buying confidence.

Along similar lines, Mehta and Purvis (1995) found that 40% of respondents felt that advertised products do not perform as well as claimed in the advertising. However, their study did find that nearly half of the adults surveyed considered advertising to be useful in keeping "up-to-date about products and services." Consequently, it appears that consumers are more likely to read/view commercial homepages only when they found interesting information related to the products, and adopted a non-biased approach in dissemination of this information. It also indicates that clicking open commercial Webpages may also be affected by an individual’s attitude toward advertising in general.

DISCUSSION

This investigation adopted a descriptive approach to understand and interpret the actions of individuals surfing the Web. Unlike conventional forms of marketing communication such as advertising, interactive forms enable the consumer to exercise considerable control over receipt of communication. Marketers and advertisers need to understand consumers’ styles and manners of browsing the Web in order to create and build effective Web pages as a new form of marketing communication.

The findings of this study suggest that individuals typically rely on the Web links and browser buttons to navigate on the Web. Browsing behavior typically is a "reject unless interesting" activity, suggesting that if the homepage does not capture the visitor’s interest in the first few seconds, it is replaced by something else very quickly. Thus it is important to build interest and excitement from the opening page and paragraph onward. Marketers should keep this in mind when developing their unique homepages.

Since a key homepage is used as the point of departure for exploration by consumers, marketers should collaborate amongst suppliers and providers to set up links that help in both access, and cooperative marketing plans. For instance, it may be advantageous for a car dealer to have links to the car brands carried, car tint and accessories specialists, insurance agents and tire retailers, in his homepage. Likewise it would be mutually beneficial for each of these suppliers to have links to the dealer in their individual homepages. Related articles and stories of interest (e.g. characteristics of the electric car, sneak previews of next year’s models) could be periodically included in the homepages to maintain the level of interest in selection of the homepage as the reference point.

Emulating the navigational directional buttons onto Web pages can benefit marketers because individuals use the Back button extensively. By enabling individuals to click on Webpage buttons instead of the browser buttons, marketers may be able to track consumer visits to their homepages more accurately. This data can then used in consumer databases to more closely understand the consumer and his/her needs.

Individuals were found to rarely wait for long periods of time for the picture or graphic to unfold, and instead move on to another Wbpage. With the growth of the Web and resulting competition from homepages for attention, it would be more appropriate to adopt simpler, yet elegant designs that both appeal and load in a very short time.

A more important concern seems to be consumers’ lack of interest in commercial Websites. This was found to stem from the perception of being led astray by marketers. One strategy to counter this could be to facilitate greater control and use of information to consumers by offering links to nonbiased sources of information. Selective exposure may also be overcome by ubiquity. Atkin and Bowen (1973)’s research into televised political ads suggested that the pervasiveness of television commercials helped overcome the selective exposure bias.

Selective exposure may be also driven by consumers’ needs and the satisfaction of those needs from information sources, one of the key contemporary assumptions of the uses-and-gratifications perspective (Rubin 1993). As mentioned earlier, consumers are skeptical of advertising, and may consequently, receive less gratification from such sources of information. This contention remains to be tested in subsequent studies.

The optimal stimulation level literature (Steenkamp and Baumgartner 1992) also indicates that individuals’ browsing behavior could be a function of their individual stimulation levels. Hence, devising homepages that stimulate curiosity may facilitate exposure to marketers’ messages. Future research could address this issue.

Organizational credibility may assume greater importance in ensuring visibility of the organization in cyberspace. Awareness of an organization or a brand, and a positive attitude toward the marketer may be an important determinant of exposure in this medium, and is again left open to future investigations.

Finally, this study has its limitations. First, a small convenience sample of students was used which enables little information on non-student consumers browsing the Web from their work-place or homes. However, the use of a student sample in this study is appropriate because students are frequent computer users, both for work and entertainment, and large universities maintain Websites. Second, the Web is a dynamic place and its features, the Websites, homepages, search programs, advertising and graphics, are changing constantly. Consequently, consumers tend to change their browsing behavior as the Web, and its elements change. This study is a necessary first step in this area, and more extensive testing of the contentions advanced in this discussion via experiments or surveys would enable a better understanding of how consumers use this medium.

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